A FAMILY AFFAIR
MULTIGENERATIONAL RETAILERS SHARE THEIR SPECIAL TAKE ON BUSINESS.
Byline: With contributions from Kathryn Hopper / Melissa Knopper / Georgia Lee / Kelley Buttrick
They are the survivors. The independents who have stayed in business for decades — even generations — in the ever-competitive world of retail, weathering economic ups and downs and seeing styles and customers come and go. Many of these independents are now welcoming second and third generations to the helm. As grown children and even grandchildren join the family business, they bring their own kind of expertise, from launching Web sites to finding new lines that appeal to younger shoppers. Here are the survival stories of several independents and some of the strategies they are using to make sure they are around for future generations.
During the Great Depression, his grandfather opened a general store that grew to a four-store operation. His father continued in his footsteps. But, inspired by New York’s Brooks Bros., Jim Adams wanted a fine clothing store. Sensing a changing retail climate, he opened Carriage House, a men’s store, in the first strip shopping center in Decatur, Ala.
Expanding in 1968, Adams, with wife Marella, added women’s apparel, dropping men’s wear by 1974. For the next two decades, the 7,500-square-foot Carriage House was the designer store in north Alabama, according to Adams. With sophisticated designer dressing from Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and others, Carriage House offered head-to-toe wardrobing for every occasion, even bridal, and accessories from jewelry to luggage.
But around 10 years ago, retail changed again, with the casual revolution and cheap chic. Big retail and bad economic times forced many independent retailers out of business, and Carriage reevaluated its merchandise mix yet again. As demand decreased for designer lines Adams added more bridge lines, such as Lafayette 148 and Yansi Fugel.
But while the times have changed, the original approach to selling has stayed virtually the same.
“Women come in and stay for hours in the dressing room, while a salesperson makes suggestions and brings them clothes,” said Adams. “They want service and a total look.”
In the mid-Nineties, Jim’s son, Seth Adams, joined the family business. Unlike his father, Seth had worked in big retail, for Parisian, a Birmingham, Ala.-based department store chain now owned by Saks Inc., but disliked the corporate atmosphere. With Seth in mind, and seeking a larger metro area for a new store, Jim bought Village Sportswear, a successful specialty store in Birmingham, from the original owners.
Seth, now 35, runs the 6,000-square-foot Village Sportswear. Located in the affluent Mountain Brook area of Birmingham, Village Sportswear is similar to Carriage House, offering mostly bridge, a few designer lines and lifestyle looks that work from grocery store to cocktail party. Best-selling lines include Lafayette 148, & Trousers and Zanella.
But like his father, Seth Adams had a vision. To reach a younger, high-end contemporary customer, Seth opened Marella, a 3,000-square-foot store in the Homewood section of Birmingham, four years ago. Marella carries several lines exclusive to Birmingham, such as Michael Kors and Teenflo, and caters to a busy young woman, often a career customer with little time to spare.
“She doesn’t need or want to be waited on as much,” said Seth. “She learned to shop in department stores and prefers to help herself.” This customer, said Seth, also curtailed spending and shopping more after Sept. 11, than the other stores’ more affluent customers did.
Although both are successful merchants, father and son differ in many ways. While Jim buys only neutrals, spiced with color accents for spring, Seth is more open to color.
“Dad and my mother are very creative, while I have more training in business,” said Seth. While the two work well together, if there’s a dispute, the elder Adams usually wins, said Seth.
One thing they both have in common is a commitment to business and beyond-the-call-of-duty customer service. Once, when a customer wanted a Calvin Klein piece that wasn’t in stock, Seth flew to New York, bought the item at retail, put his store ticket on it, and delivered it to the unaware, but satisfied, customer.
While the stores offer endless problem-solving opportunities, a good living, and job satisfaction, the Adams retail dynasty will probably end with Seth. He can’t imagine his two children, age four and six, wanting to go into retail.
“It’s too difficult today,” he said. “It’s a shame that there aren’t more independent retailers around, but there are so many easier things to do.”
Several generations of small-town shoppers with an eye for fashion have walked through the doors of The Big Store in Tifton, Ga., a town with a population of 38,000 located 180 miles almost due south of Atlanta. The store came into the family when Isadore Perlis and his wife, Clara, purchased it in the early Thirties. In 1956, Isadore handed the managerial reins over to his son Marvin, who ran the store with the help of his wife, Lynette. Today, their son Philip and his wife, Susan, keep customers coming back with a combination of customer service and strong product lines.
Second and third generations of families who shopped in the mid-Fifties come to The Big Store to find lines including Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, Garfield, Sigrid Olsen, Tommy Hilfiger and Revue, as well as accessories and shoes. “We work very hard so we will never be what many folks think of as a small town department store,” said Lynette Perlis. “We have always tried to be ahead of the game.”
And in today’s well-traveled world, she explained, that’s increasingly important.
“People who live here travel all over the world. If you don’t stay up with current things, you lose. We do a lot of that, staying on top of things and sensing trend directions. We sense them sometimes before the cities do.”
That’s because, she explained, at The Big Store, the people on the sales floor are the same people who can bridge the gap between the consumer and the vendor. “We hear what people are saying,” she added.
As larger retailers moved into south Georgia, the Perlis family had to readjust their focus. They closed their lower-price-range stores to focus on the higher-end clothing offered at The Big Store, now their only location.
Indeed, retail is a much tougher business than it used to be, said Perlis.
“As a smaller retailer dealing with large companies, our merchandise doesn’t have ‘wheels,’ meaning, if it doesn’t sell, we can’t send it back, we have to eat it. Then we have to compete with outlet stores, and chains that can sink a lot into promotion.
“It’s not as much fun, but we still like it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing it.”
When Gail Zomick opened her shop, the Village Set, in northern Chicago suburb Highland Park 37 years ago, women were trying to emulate Jackie Kennedy, with prim suits and pillbox hats. Today, Gail Zomick, 62, is still outfitting Highland Park women, but the retail business has changed.
Now, her son, Guy, helps set a different, younger tone for the store. In the early days, the Village Set sold mostly dresses for casual daytime wear. “We’re bringing in more jeans and novelty tops,” said Guy. “The business has gotten a lot more sophisticated because we’ve gotten more European lines.” In recent years, the Zomicks have been moving in another new direction: mother-of-the-bride and prom gowns.
“We’ve definitely gone into more eveningwear, dresses, high-end suits and cocktail suits,” Guy said. Since the Village Set serves a very broad age range, from high school students to grandmothers in their 60s and 70s, the Zomicks can each draw on the perspective their age affords them toward running the store: Guy does most of the buying for the younger clients, while Gail keeps an eye out for lines that are more appropriate for her age group.
“We cater to a lot of different individuals in terms of age and the whole financial spectrum,” Guy said. “I think the generational [differences] in our business help with that a lot.”
Watching his parents run their store while growing up helped Guy develop an innate knowledge about the retail business and their specific North Shore market. For example, he said, women in the Midwest tend to go for conservative colors like black and navy, so he rarely buys anything floral.
After working as an attorney for several years, Guy joined the family business when his father retired 12 years ago. His wife, Julie, helps out on the floor, and his cousin Gary Kabins runs their second store in Skokie.
According to Guy, small mom-and-pop operations have several advantages. First, the people making the buying decisions are also serving the customers out on the floor. That helps them identify trends and react to them more quickly. Guy believes this is what has protected the Village Set from post-Sept. 11 fallout. “If I have five customers come in asking for a peasant blouse, I can be on a plane to New York that week to order it,” he said. “The majors don’t have that kind of flexibility.”
Also, smaller shops like the Village Set are able to give customers highly individual, personal service. “If somebody breaks a zipper at 8 p.m. on a Saturday, they know where to find me,” he said. Of course, family businesses have their downsides, he added. Long hours are one drawback. And sometimes it’s difficult to leave the worries behind when you live and work together. But overall, Zomick said he’s content with the arrangement.
“We have a successful business because we work well together and we support each other,” he said. “There are a lot of tough decisions and a lot of heated debates, but at the end of the day, we all go to dinner together.”
Gail Zomick has seen many changes in the retail industry during her 37 years in the business. Before, women were more decisive about buying. “It’s harder now,” she said. “You wait and wait and they may have looked at something four times before they buy it.” Also, for special occasion outfits, a woman is more likely to bring in her husband to get his opinion than in the past. Styles have also changed a great deal, Gail said. “We used to sell a lot of short dresses and nice pantsuits,” she said. “Now, it’s very casual — lots of jeans and T-shirts.”
Gail admitted sometimes she doesn’t understand what sells to the younger generation. “A lot of times, I just have to cover my eyes when my son and daughter-in-law want to buy something,” she said. “But I just have to trust them, and usually they’re right.”
The biggest benefit to being in business with family is the peace of mind that comes of having someone you trust watching the shop, Gail said. “When I walk out of the store, I feel very comfortable, and I know they are going to do whatever they can for the business,” she explained.
A chain of women’s apparel stores based in Dallas, Colbert’s has been managed by the Greenberg family since they purchased the company in 1948 from its founders. Although the company grew to 27 stores in the Sixties, today it operates 11 locations, ranging from 6,000 to 13,000 square feet, in cities including Dallas, Atlanta, Memphis and Jackson, Miss.
President David Greenberg, who’s part of the third generation of retailing Greenbergs, said the company is eyeing Laredo, Tex., and Mobile, Ala., for possible expansion. “Right now is a great time to be looking,” he said. “I’m in this for the long term, so I negotiate when things aren’t at their peak.” Greenberg typically looks for strip mall locations as opposed to megamalls, which he said are too expensive. Colbert’s closed many of its mall locations in the late Seventies and early Eighties because rents were too high. “Now, malls are begging for tenants,” said Greenberg, who describes the current recession as “a mild dip.”
“Things go in cycles. You have good times and you have bad. Today, the hardest thing we have to do is keep our core customers, women from age 40 to 60, and to keep growing,” he said. His brother, Mark, runs a separate family business called Tamara Import, which sells apparel produced overseas to major chains. The two companies don’t overlap that much, David Greenberg said, because Colbert’s typically carries high-quality merchandise that can’t be found in department stores. (Colbert’s competitors include Dillard’s, Foley’s and Neiman Marcus.)
Finding a niche in the competitive world of retail is a lesson Greenberg learned from his father and grandfather. Stores are stocked based on their individual market and will only carry lines such as DKNY and David Meister if the local department stores don’t carry them.
Colbert’s discovered that hats were a category that had been largely abandoned by the majors, so the store beefed up its assortment with extensive in-store displays pairing elaborate hats with coordinating dresses and suits. “We found that market and have become one of the largest hat retailers in the country,” he said. Colbert’s buyers also find less-carried looks at markets that others bypass, such as Toronto and Montreal. “Places other buyers think are a waste are really not at all,” said Greenberg.
Like other retailers, Colbert’s has struggled in the post-Sept. 11 environment. Greenberg said sales in 2001 had seen single-digit drops. Spring sales have been spotty, with some Colbert’s units enjoying gains and others still struggling.
Greenberg attributes his company’s survival to his hardworking staff. “People make your company; you don’t make your company,” Greenberg said. “It’s the people you surround yourself with. The real business is done on the sales floor.”
John B. Malouf recognized a market for upscale goods back in 1949, when he found out residents of his Lubbock, Tex., hometown were traveling to Dallas — a good 345 miles away — to buy designer looks. Malouf’s eventually grew to 20,000 square feet of selling space.
Ten years ago, John Malouf opened a second, 8,500-square-foot store in Burlingame, Calif., managed by his son, Sam. The stores had combined annual sales of $8 million in 2001, slightly down from the previous year, which Malouf attributes to a slowdown in west Texas’s agriculture business and the Silicon Valley dot-com bust.
Both locations offer such women’s labels as St. John, Max Mara, Geiger and David Yurman jewelry plus men’s wear lines such as Brioni, Hickey-Freeman and Oxxford. The California store carries slightly higher price points, mirroring its posh suburban environs (it’s located just outside of San Francisco). The Lubbock store’s location allows it to carry a wider merchandise mix.
The company recently launched a Web site at maloufs.com, a project that was instigated by Sam Malouf. The Web site is strictly promotional for now, but an e-tailing component should be added within a year.
Malouf’s also relies on STS software, which John Malouf calls “the Cadillac of systems” to keep track of consumer data. Malouf said installing the software was one of the best business moves he ever made: Recently, he sent out 500 St. John mailers to shoppers who had previously bought the line. The software has more than paid for itself, he added, and he is installing an upgraded version later this year.
John Malouf said one of the top retailing lessons he wants to teach Sam is to keep debt to a minimum. But he admits that a Depression-era mentality can be a tough sell to the younger generation.
“They want to have a certain lifestyle,” he said. “They aren’t as willing to put the money back into the business. Young retailers, he feels, face different challenges from the ones he did. “Today’s customers aren’t as loyal as they used to be,” he said. “Our most loyal shoppers used to give us 90 percent of their business, but now it’s only 60 percent. That’s because they are shopping more when they travel. We have to work harder to make our store even more appealing, and to really court them.”